Connecting the dots: writing for makers

In the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time writing for makers. I’ve written artist statements, funding applications, exhibition catalogues, website content and magazine articles. I’ve had to look at their work with a critical eye and perhaps reveal something that even the maker had not considered. This process is one of collaboration and connection between writer, object and maker.

As a maker myself I can also be confronted by the task of articulating work. Recently I made an exhibition application to recreate a Tennyson poem by making a garden of hand dyed and beaded cotton flowers. ‘Into the Garden Maude’ would be recreated on the gallery floor, with over 700 blooms. I had to make connections between Victorian mourning tradition, women’s handiwork and the parallels between poetry and textiles. Really I wanted to say ‘this exists in my head, fully formed and I want the opportunity to create it’. Often when connecting theory to practice the maker can feel fraudulent. As if attaching a more complex idea to a single object makes you somehow complicit in prescribing more meaning than it actually has.

Craft in a fine art environment does pose a challenge for makers but I think it’s a healthy one. Concerns over functionality, production, marketing can be put aside momentarily. Ideas, tenuous and as they often are, can be teased out and explored. I recently wrote a press release of a jeweller having a major solo show. This was a task the gallery had put to her several months before. She had been so challenged by the idea of distilling her body of work to 150 words that she crumbled under the pressure. She believed somehow the work to be at fault, as if it should come with its own text panel to support its existence. Within 30 minutes of talking to her, gently and slowly about the work, I was able to build a simple paragraph that was cohesive and engaging. There were plenty of ideas there, it was a matter of connecting the dots.

Is writing a skill that makers can or should acquire? From a purely self serving position I  say not necessarily. Inviting someone into your process who can  help navigate through this element of work can be a rewarding and enlightening experience that may have you going in different directions. But writing is just like any craft, with practice, technique and patience it is a skill that can be honed over time and can serve the maker well.

Making things–beyond the art/craft wedge

Reading Glenn Adamson’s and Tanya Harrod’s joint interview with novelist A.S. Byatt (or Dame Antonia Byatt, as she is known in her home context—to my American tastebuds, Dame, I must confess, feels funny on the tongue), I was struck by the nationalism of her project, and the utter Englishness with which she is grappling: the difficulties and aftereffects of modernization, and the audiences, personalities, and social roles made manifest in the material culture in fin de siècle British culture. Put another way, Byatt’s book magnifies the twin ideologies of modernism and capitalism. The myriad descriptions of paintings, pots, glazes, wrought iron, skirted sewing tables, and whale-bone corseted women offer a stupefying collection of stuff: the Edwardian domestic possessions that have now become coveted antiques and collectibles, their well-conceived forms, colors and intensities spawning an assortment of Victoriana kitsch that continues to proliferate well into the present day—just attend any Victorian Studies Association conference, or save yourself the trouble and invest in a pair of patent leather granny boots, dye your hair black (with a center part), and knit yourself a tea cozy (or cell phone cozy).

Nationalism seems to be a consistent issue in craft practices, one we can’t really easily get away from. Why is this? Because craft processes are not only linked with “tradition,” but also, intertwined with production: labor practice, economic recovery, and collective pride. No matter that craft is still, more often than not, inefficient and expensive, and a touch utopian. Hand-dyed, hand-spun cotton and wool from a knitting store—you know, those lovely ones, independently owned and run—often go for $9 or $11 a skein, versus the yucky acrylic stuff sold at chain craft stores that sell for $3 or so. Much like farmer’s market produce versus the conventional supermarket, there is no comparison, of course, in terms of quality, but the small, independent stores more often than not end up belly-up. The intent is there: to ignite a revival, a community of like-minded souls who turn up for knit class, or collective quilting sessions altogether, but such publics are usually made, and not found.

Adamson asks pointed questions about whether or not there is a utopian imperative inherent in craft. Byatt redirects her answer, positing that utopianism is “…actually dangerous. Certainly in the 1960s it was. I decided that a kind of rather flat skepticism, and making things, making things well, is better than a utopian attempt to reform society.” I found Byatt’s statement a very useful correlative in re-thinking the de-skilled artistic practice that exists broadly throughout visual art training—the idea that one acquires skill based upon the sorts of projects one decides to execute. This is an anathema to traditional craft practice, of course, but now that the two are mostly merged—I don’t really make a distinction between contemporary art, per say, and contemporary craft, they are one and the same—that is, both camps are working conceptually. Furthermore, craft-based processes have been co-opted by visual artists of all stripes invested in issues of design, labor, and community. Yet, when Byatt says, “I believe in making things,” she hits on a tender nerve in our community, the seeming wedge between conceptual art and craft practices, which no longer exists. All artists believe in making things, it is just that the definition of “thing” is imprecise, and always in flux. That is also the beauty of artistic practice, in that there are so many kinds of “things” to make, be it a book, a tea cozy, an installation, or a You Tube video.

Writing things well

Theme for Issue 4.1

"I decided that a kind of rather flat skepticism, and making things, making things well, is better than a utopian attempt to reform society." A.S. Byatt

What is the relation between craft and writing? Is it to enhance our enjoyment of craft? How does the craft sensibility influence writing practice? Is it more about attention to detail than the bigger picture?

This theme is an opportunity to share opinions about the kind of writing that enhances craft, those writers who embody a craft sensibility, and ideas about the role of craft in relation to other elements of the writing trade, such as content and expression.

We are joined at the Table with two erudite guests to lead this conversation, Jenni Sorkin and Ramona Barry. As an appetiser, you are invited to read the interview with A.S. Byatt about her recent novel, The Children’s Book. To contribute to this discussion, take a seat here.